Just In Time -- Kid Stuff

Sept. 17, 2007
Enough with the finger-pointing and the grandstanding: There is no excuse for poorly made products.

There's nothing more ridiculous than the sight of grown-ups playing with children's toys. And make no mistake, that's exactly what's going on with all the posturing and finger-pointing that have occurred in the wake of the recall by Mattel of 20 million dolls, cars and other toys whose manufacture had been outsourced to China.

Predictably, the reactions in the United States have run the gamut from Senator Dick Durbin's pronouncement that we should inspect every shipment of children's products from China that contains paint (literally billions of toys sold in the U.S. are made in China), to Mattel CEO Robert Eckert's insistence that his company shouldn't be expected to alert the Consumer Product Safety Commission as soon as a product hazard is detected.

The idea of inspecting every single toy -- or food product, or tube of toothpaste, or any other consumer product -- coming into the U.S. from China is pure fantasy, and any politician who proposes it knows it's a fantasy. They also know, though, how well their grandstanding sounds to their constituencies, and if it gets people all hot and bothered about how incompetent the current administration must be if we're letting so much contaminated stuff into the country, so much the better. For his part, Eckert sounds like virtually every other manufacturing executive who's been backed into a corner, appealing more to his shareholders than to the parents who are understandably concerned whether their sons and daughters are being exposed to health risks.

If anything, the reaction to the recalls in China has been even more extreme, ranging from the nonchalant dismissal of the recalls as being due to "oversensitivity" on the part of U.S. citizens by China's Health Minister Chen Zhu, to the ultimate "falling on your sword" moment -- the suicide of Zhang Shuhong, CEO of a company blamed for using lead-based paint on a million Mattel toys.

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See Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.
Lost in all those extreme reactions was the reality of the situation: Most of the recalled toys did not have lead paint on them; they were recalled because of a bad product design (detachable magnets that a child could swallow) that originated in the United States. While there's clear evidence that some Chinese manufacturers have been shipping stateside some products that don't meet even the minimum standards of quality or safety (and the use of banned lead paint on children's toys is unconscionable and indefensible), the culpability for producing more than 18 million Mattel toys with potentially hazardous magnets apparently rests on Mattel's shoulders alone.

Aldous Huxley once said, "Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you." I'm cautiously hopeful that U.S. manufacturers will take this opportunity (perhaps forced upon them by their customers, but so be it) to re-evaluate the economics of offshoring production work to a country that is neither democratic nor capitalist but is instead a Communist society. It's time that the hefty costs of product recalls be factored into the offshoring equation, which ought to diminish the attraction of using a workforce that'll settle for a dollar an hour or less.

At the same time, though, U.S. manufacturers have to own up to their responsibilities to effectively manage their global supply chains, from the point of origin to the point of consumption and all points in between. There is absolutely no excuse for poorly made products. If it's got your company's name on it, it's your problem. Don't blame your government's policies, or any other country's policies, for a bad product. Act like an adult, and just fix the problem.

David Blanchard is IW's editor-in-chief. He is based in Cleveland. Also see Chain Reactions: David Blanchard's blog about supply chain management.

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